Incoming eighth-graders made bridges out of uncooked pasta during UC Santa Barbara’s Tech Trek program, which aims to get girls interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.  (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo )

Find an answer for what to do with a decommissioned oil rig, how to create a sustainable food system and how to build a robot for underwater exploration and research.

That’s no easy task, but it’s exactly what a group of middle school-aged girls is tackling during the Tech Trek summer program at UC Santa Barbara.

The American Association of University Women is hosting its 11th annual week-long camp at UCSB to encourage 86 hand-selected incoming eighth-graders to enthusiastically explore the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM.






The national organization aims to level the playing field for women through education, advocacy and philanthropy, which is why the camp — including room and board at Santa Rosa Residence Hall — was completely free of charge.

Local teachers recommend Tech Trek students to AAUW branches, which raise money and pick participants to receive the full college experience — such as living in a dorm room with a relative stranger, socializing with peers and working on group projects.

“We are promoting young ladies to do better in life, and this camp is all about that,” said Judy Pfeil, an AAUW representative.

A total of 28 Santa Barbara County girls are taking the Tech Trek, with the number split up between two camps this week and last.

The camp’s five core classes include coding, marine science, math, physical science and engineering, all but one of which is taught by professional women with college degrees.

More than 16,000 girls have gone through AAUW’s Tech Trek camp since its founding 18 years ago at Stanford University. Now camps are organized in 20 other states.

“Our target market is girls who don’t go to a lot of other camps,” camp director Susan Pease told Noozhawk, noting many of the students are first-generation college students.

“We want to take the fear factor away,” she said. “We try to make it as real as possible. There’s nothing to fear.”

Tech Trek is meant to inspire confidence in students, and the self-assurance was evident Wednesday when chatting with a couple of participants in the physics classroom of the Santa Rosa dorms.

The assignment was to build miniature bridge trusses from uncooked spaghetti noodles, and one small group came up with a special “K” supportive truss of its own.

Both students smiled shyly but answered questions thoughtfully, remarking how they had already learned a lot.

They weren’t quite ready to answer those three overarching camp questions, but were well on their way.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at gpotthoff@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.